Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, October 30, 2020

1st Circuit Upholds Exclusion of "Sectarian" Schools

... In a panel opinion joined by David Souter (ret.), sitting by designation. Maine provides that rural students who can't access a public school can have tuition paid at a private school, but not if it's "sectarian." The CA1 permitted this, despite Trinity Lutheran Church and Espinoza, on the ground that the definition of "sectarian" means that a school (and the parents' choice of it) is disqualified from eligibility not simply because the school is religiously affiliated (religious "status"), but because the funds will be used for activity that includes religious teaching (religious "use").

That issue was formally reserved by Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza: the  Court wrote the opinions in a way that allowed a lower court to do this if  so inclined. But the status/use distinction won't, and shouldn't, hold up ultimately. For one thing, "use" for religious teaching is also religious exercise (as Justice Gorsuch has emphasized throughout). For another, denying the entire tuition benefit--which supports education of full secular value--because there's religious teaching mixed in ends up denying it based on religious character/status. The distinction collapses, as Gorsuch has also said. Doug Laycock and I have laid out these arguments fully in an Espinoza amicus brief and a new article just published in the Journal of Law and Religion.
It seems very likely that a majority of the Court would view the CA1 ruling as appropriate for reversal. The question is whether they want to revisit the issue so soon after Espinoza.
The CA1 opinion also has a striking argument that the state is paying for the equivalent of a public education and the essence of a public education includes there being no significant religious element--therefore only secular private schools should be eligible. Although the state places some baseline accreditation-type regulations on the qualifying private schools, it doesn't appear to place major regulations that ensure they're truly like the public schools. They just can't teach religion.
There is an argument out there, with very broad consequences, that even funding public schools only--and no private schools--discriminates against religion because part of the definition of a public school is that it can't have religion in its teaching. It's almost like the CA1 panel wants to drive the Court toward that argument.


Berg, Thomas , Current Affairs , Religion | Permalink